Program Notes

October 15th, 2016
Jordan Hall at NEC; David Hoose, conductor

J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 109, "Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinen Unglauben"
J.D. Zelenka: Laetatus sum, ZWV 90 First American Performance
J.D. Zelenka: "Tenebrae factae sunt" from Responsoria pro hebdomada sancta, ZWV 55 **First Boston Performance
J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 147, "Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben"

Notes by David Hoose

Johann Sebastian Bach, “Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben,” BWV 109

Cantata BWV 109 was composed in October of 1723, during Bach’s first year in Leipzig. The cantata is scored for two soloists, alto and tenor, four-part chorus, and an orchestra of two oboes, corno da caccia, strings, and continuo.

The cantata “Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben”—I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief—draws its inspiration from the Gospel for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, John 4:46-54, which speaks of a father’s faith when he asks that his son be healed. The entire cantata is a probing psychological study of the conflict between faith and doubt. As is often the case, Bach’s focus is on the doubt.

The opening is as miraculous and insightful a chorus as any Bach composed. In a broad opening phrase, the orchestra pleads, its melodic line twisting and climbing quickly to an uncomfortable height. In slow waves, the phrase descends and remains unresolved until the fourteenth measure. Not for another 200 years, with the music of Wagner, Strauss and Schoenberg, would such expansive musical expression become the norm.

Finally, with a cadence in the home key, the opening returns. However, when it moves in a different direction, the phrase closes prematurely. Immediately, the sopranos enter in mid-thought, their line reaching up in belief, momentarily suspending in the Lord’s love, and quickly retreating in doubt. This briefest phrase captures the entire movement’s drama. The other voices of the chorus enter, but they, too, withdraw, bewildered, and they leave the sopranos to their wandering. The sopranos cry out, “hilf,” and the other voices reenter, but they are now entrapped in their own doubt. Questioning has rarely been so gorgeously depicted as it is in their entwined lines.

The first movement’s conflicts persist throughout the entire cantata. The tenor recitative, itself a small dramatic scene, is a stressful journey from B-flat major to E minor, the interval of an augmented 4th—the dreaded Diabolus in musica, or “the devil in music.” In the astounding aria, the harmonies wrench, and the singer and orchestra often move in different paths, unaware of each other’s struggle.

The harshness eases with the alto recitative and aria: the soloist, with two plaintive oboes and continuo instruments, offers assurance that Christ will act in our lives. But startling harmonies continue, and they keep this triple-meter aria from becoming a simple dance. The final chorale is as commanding as the rest of the cantata, an elaborate setting of the hymn, “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbet”—Through Adam’s fall all is spoiled. The instruments rush nervously, but the stern voices ignore them. In the chorus’s final phrase, “Er hilft sein’ Gläubgen allen”—He helps all His faithful—the bottom three voices momentarily wrest themselves from the sopranos’ chorale tune, and they shout, “er hilft.” It is as if they are trying to drive their force away, and the cantata’s end is more determined than comforting.

Jan Dismas Zelenka, a brief biography

Jan Dismas Zelenka was born in Prague in 1679, and he died there in 1745. He and J.S. Bach knew each other, and Bach admired his music enough to own scores of several of Zelenka’s large mass settings. Zelenka and Georg Philipp Telemann were also friends and colleagues, and when Zelenka died, Telemann tried—but failed—to get the twenty-seven motets of the Hebdomada Responsoria published. Many of Zelenka’s compositions had never been performed, and much of the music was locked away.

In the 1960s, over two hundred years after his death, interest in his music began to grow, primarily in the Czech Republic. By now, much of the music has been published, and many of his compositions are recorded. The range of his music is enormous, and it rings with invention, authority and radiance that belie the music’s long obscurity. The music can also be difficult to place: some of it suggests a language that we think of as Classical, and some of it reaches back to the Renaissance, although without any antiquarian nostalgia. Zelenka’s music offers continuing proof that there are far more than 100 marvelous composers.

We know little of his personal life, other than that he never married and had no children. No paintings of him exist. His family was musical, and he took his formal training at the local Jesuit college. In his early thirties, Zelenka moved to Dresden to play violone (a precursor to the double bass) in the Royal Orchestra and, during his first years there, began to compose substantial musical works. Realizing that he needed to master the older polyphonic composition techniques, he traveled to Vienna to study with Johann Joseph Fux, the composer whose treatise on contrapuntal writing has influenced virtually every composer’s education since. Four years later, he returned to Dresden, where he remained and eventually held the distinguished position of “Composer of the Royal Court Cappelle.” We do know that he always hoped for more responsibility, greater acknowledgement, and a higher salary.

Zelenka left more than 150 compositions: at least five masses, several requiem settings, two Miserere, five settings of Dixit Dominus, five settings of Confitebor tibi Domine, three of Beatus vir, six of Laudate pueri, five of Alma redemptoris Mater, six Regina coeli, seven Salve Regina, the twenty-seven Lenten motets of the Hebdomada Responsoria, and three settings of Laetatus sum. This impressive list represents only a portion of his sacred music; he also composed marvelous trio sonatas and virtuosic orchestral music.

Jan Dismas Zelenka, Laetatus sum, ZWV 90

Zelenka composed three settings of Laetatus sum. One is lost, one is a modest D major setting for chorus and orchestra, and the third, from 1730, is an A major, virtuosic, and multi-movement setting of a text that many composers have chosen to treat more modestly—for example, Monteverdi’s suave and compact setting of the same text in this season’s December holiday concerts. This setting by Zelenka is for two vocal soloists, two flutes, strings and a continuo group, and it is about twenty minutes long.

The irresistible brilliance of the A major Laetatus sum may surprise anyone who has heard other music of Zelenka, including his works from recent Cantata Singers seasons—Missa Votiva, Miserere, and motets from Hebdomada Responsoria. In those, especially the Mass, zaniness pops in, but none are buoyed by such sustained exuberance. The technical skill asked of the two soloists and of the orchestra—particularly the violinists—is staggering, and it suggests one of several possibilities: 1) Zelenka’s ensemble was fantastic, 2) he was writing without regard to human limitations, or 3) as a lowly violone player, he loved to see those glamorous, attention-seeking high voices sweat.

The first movement is an ebullient dance. The two soloists alternate between calls to each other and blissful singing in pairs. The violins bubble, now with fire, now with cheer, and a driving bass line sweeps everyone along. In the second movement, “Illuc enim,” the soprano scurries in thrilling coloratura, and the violins reply with their own fireworks. In the “Rogate,” when the two voices entwine above a leisurely bass line, the music turns personal and searching.

Two flutes make their chirping appearance in the fourth movement, “Fiat pax,” high above the alto’s aristocratic line. Much of the movement sails free of any low instruments, and when all the strings interrupt with several loud gulps, it would be comical were the words not so prayerful. The soloists begin the “Gloria” with an unusual, written-out messa di voce, a one-note crescendo and diminuendo, while the continuo pulses below. At the heart of this brief movement, the voices swing above a bubbling bass line. The messa di voce of the opening returns and, with a delicate curve in the bass line, the movement closes.

The “Sicut erat” catches everyone in an operatic finale, a delightful, mad dash. The voices tease each other with astonishing passagework, and the orchestra, caught up in the giddiness, can barely contain itself. When the orchestra finally cuts loose with its own joyous swoops, even the lowly violone gets into the game. The two voices try to restore civility, but their excitement gathers in a duet cadenza that catapults the orchestra to the finish.

Jan Dismas Zelenka, Tenebrae factae sunt, from Responsoria pro hebdomada sancta, ZWV 55

Beginning in 1722, Zelenka worked for a year on the twenty-seven motets of his Responsoria pro hebdomada sancta—Responses for Holy Week. The musical tradition for these three days of prayer leading to Easter—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday—is rich and broad, and it reaches from Palestrina, Gesualdo, and Lassus to Poulenc and Stravinsky. Zelenka’s Responsoria is an impressive achievement, soaring in scope, richly sensitive to the texts, and ceaselessly inventive. The scoring of all the motets is the same: four voice chorus with occasional solo ensembles and instrumental doublings. Yet each motet has its own personality, and the variety within the settings stretches beyond the steadily reflective tone of the matins.

Some of the twenty-seven motets are modest adjuncts to surrounding ones, but many are rich enough to stand by themselves. Among the central motets, the splendid setting for Good Friday of the Tenebrae text is a high point. Just as anyone knowing a bit of Zelenka’s music might be surprised (and delighted) by the Laetatus sum, someone coming to his music for the first time could be startled by the immense gulf between that glittering music and this contemplative motet.

The opening verges on plainness. With the second phrase, however, the music begins to agitate, and it erupts at “exclamavit Jesus voce magna”—Jesus cried in a loud voice. Jesus’ words are sung not by a solo voice, as would be typical, but by a trio whose lines wrestle with each other. At Jesus’ passing, the chorus’ lines arch gently and patiently fall. A second outburst of “Exclamans” leads to the heart of the motet, “Pater, in manus tuas commendo”—Father, into your hands I commend myself. This time, the entire chorus sings Jesus’ words. The voice parts overlap delicately, and bittersweet dissonances nudge the phrases forward. When “et inclinato capite, emisit spiritum”—and inclined his head, gave up his spirit—reappears, the music gradually enters a meditative state. At the last return of “et inclinato capite,” the bass enters alone, and the tenor quietly rubs against it. The altos enter, absorbed by the end of the text. Then, in a vivid gesture, the sopranos enter in slow motion, as if suspended in heaven. When they return to the fold of the other voices, the motet comes to rest.

Johann Sebastian Bach, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” BWV 147

Bach composed Cantata BWV 147 in Weimar, for the Advent season. After beginning his tenure in Leipzig, where music was not performed during Advent (except on Advent Sunday), he reworked the fertile music, adding recitatives and texts to make the cantata appropriate for other Sundays, including the Feast of the Visitation. It is this version of the cantata that we know.

The cantata is in two parts, both of which close with the beautiful chorale known in England and America as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Part I includes a brilliant chorus, an accompanied tenor recitative, an aria for alto with oboe d’amore obbligato, a bass secco recitative, a soprano aria with violin obbligato, and the chorale. Three of the four solo voices return in the second part: the tenor, in an aria with continuo; the alto, in a recitative that is accompanied by double reed instrument; and the bass, in an aria that unites the full instrumental complement. The cantata closes with a welcome return—with new words—of the chorale.

Cantata 147 is scored for two oboes, with doublings on oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia, bassoon, trumpet, solo violin, strings, and continuo instruments.

The chorale that marks the end of each part of Cantata 147 is some of the most recognized and beloved of Bach’s music. Many of us were introduced to it in one of its transcriptions for other instruments, the most perennially fresh of which may be Dame Myra Hess’s magisterial 1926 piano version. But it is in the context of the cantata, its original home, that the chorale finds its deepest feeling. Bach’s decision to include this music twice—cantatas in two parts would ordinarily close with different chorales, or at least different harmonizations of the same tune—suggests that he sensed how miraculous this music was. The chorale tune itself was not composed by Bach, but by violinist and composer Johann Schop, sometime during the first half of the 17th century. Bach’s four-part choral harmonization of the simple tune is, by itself, touching. But with the interplay of the chorale harmonization and the near constant arch of instrumental triplets and dotted rhythms, the resulting rub of myriad gentle dissonances, and the chorus’s unpredictable entrances, this simple utterance rises to a visionary level.

While the chorale is the emotional center of the cantata, the other movements are as magnificent. The festive opening, one of the most difficult choruses to sing, swings and dances with infectious optimism. The first choral section is fugal, and the vocal entrances travel through the chorus from the sopranos to the basses. Laughing arpeggios, more like instrumental writing, capitalize on the text’s many monosyllables, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben.” This staccato music spills into gnarled, chorale-like music, and the chorus is left alone, supported only by the continuo instruments. When the opening fugal music returns, the order of entrances reverses, beginning with the basses and ascending to the sopranos. With the whole ensemble’s restoration of the home key, the orchestra continues with a satisfying statement of the opening material.

The accompanied tenor recitative is expansive and covers broad ground, from the miracle of Jesus’ birth to the reason for His presence on the earth. The alto aria picks up the darker feelings and, with the oboe d’amore, turns inward. At two moments, one in recognition of the Lord’s face and the other in a glimpse of glory, the alto sails through rapid scales, but the curling melodic lines, the leaning half steps, and the patient bass line give the aria its overall tone.

The startling bass recitative, with its vivid continuo writing that describes the dethroning of the powerful and the earth’s trembling, is akin to a tiny opera. With an image of salvation, the music calms, and its closing moments lead toward the optimistic soprano aria. High above florid violin triplets and a walking bass line—prepare the way of the Lord—she sings eagerly and with great rhythmic independence.

Part II opens with an aria for tenor and continuo. The soloist, cello, bass, and bassoon move steadily, but the organ tumbles ahead in rapid triplets. At first, the significance of these rushing notes is ambiguous: do they represent the believer’s woe, or his joy? Only with the text’s last word, “brenne”—burn—when the tenor takes up the triplets, does their meaning become clear.

A delicious recitative for alto, double reeds, and continuo meditates on the Lord’s miraculous work, while its expressive and detailed instrumental writing remembers something of the tenor aria. Its instrumental details and closing thought, “Dank und Preis auf eure Zunge legen”—thanks and praise lay upon your tongue—hints at the next movement. The exhilarating bass aria proclaims the wonder of Christ, and everyone—singer, trumpet, oboes, bassoon, strings, organ—is fired up. When the familiar chorale then returns, it is newly shaded by the aria’s brilliance, and this beloved music deepens and radiates inward.